Fear of the One-Person Audience

Oooh, I ran across these photos, courtesy of Christopher Clauss, of my time at Manchester’s Slam Free Or Die reading in May 2014 and realized I’d never posted ’em. There aren’t a ton of photos of me reading, but then, I haven’t done a billion readings.

But I’m getting better – and what I mean by that is I’m setting up more readings. There’s nothing like a PEN award to give a gal confidence that perhaps her words are worth hearing. I’ve been terrified of going to a reading and having only one or two people show up, and there I’d be, reading to the empty corners of the room.


It finally happened – at a reading in September, I did indeed have a grand total of one person (not required to be there) show up. I was shocked: it was billed as an open mic, and open mic usually attracts an audience. I still read, and with some flair, because hey, that one person did drive all the way to see me. But I spent the next couple of days in a funk, wondering why the heck I was doing this and feeling grumpy. That was my initiation into the one-person audience. I’m certainly not the only writer that’s happened to: my friend Corwin Ericson tells a hysterical story about his reading with a one-person audience when he was on a book tour for Swell. As his one soon-to-be audience member walked toward the empty chairs, his only thought: “Please don’t sit down. Please don’t sit down.” 

So I lived through it. Yay? 

And if I have to, I can live through it again.

It helps that I’ve also had well-attended and attentive crowds. The Manchester reading was fantastic: an open mic with probably 75 people. Mckendy Fils-Aime is the host with the most. Brandon Amico treated me lavishly (WAFFLES!!). Lots of great poetry & prose at the open mic (Brandon, Mckendy, Christopher, Peter Kispert, William James, Sarah Newton, Dillon Welch, so many more!) I had a ball. I also read 10 minutes too long (yay math, but math in front of a crowd maybe too much pressure). I’ve had readings with enthusiastic audiences in Amherst, Greenfield, Cambridge, Boston, Northampton, Orange, and more. This weekend I’m on TV, in Hopkinton. Next week I’ll be in Albany. 

My goal this year was to have 10 readings. It looks like I’ll have more than 20, with another half-dozen scheduled or being scheduled. I’m actively working on my stage presence and delivery and feeling really good about that. I’ve been to some incredible readings this year by other poets, and I study what makes their readings work: Philip Levine, Cornelius Eady (WOW), Li-Young Lee, Sharon Olds, all the incredible Split This Rock poets. I have friends and compatriots who are wonderful readers: Corwin of course, Kristin Bock, Ellen LaFleche, Sally Bellerose, Lori Desrosiers… Dillon, you are killing it on stage… Em Jollie, Brandon, Floyd Cheung, Paul Richmond – I hope I can claim you as a friend at this point… mia amica Nicole DiCello, Adam Stone (!!!), Daniel Hales, ahhhh so much goodness! 

The fear of the one-person audience has made me slower to get on the reading circuit. But now I’ve done it. I’ve looked that one person in the eye and I read my poems and though I can say my time might have been better spent that night with my family, that reading was an outlier. 

Here’s to more poetry, out loud and outspoken. 

My book Frost in the Low Areas was a finalist for the 2014 Massachusetts Book Award, along with Amy Dryansky’s Grass Whistle (her book won top spot, and it’s wonderful!), Stephen Burt’s Belmont, Mark Hart’s Boy Singing to Cattle, Myles Gordon’s Inside the Splintered Wood, and Ben Berman’s Strange Borderlands. Click the link below to see all the “Must-Read Books” of 2014 – fiction, nonfiction, children’s, and poetry – and read a little about them. 

Massachusetts Book Award

Here’s what the judges had to say about my book: “Karen Skolfield’s debut, Frost in the Low Areas introduces a poet who encompasses both the beauty and darkness of the natural world, the particulars of her children, and the corrosiveness of family secrets. Yet even in the darkest of circumstance, each poem is filled with joy, humor, and elegance.”

It’s pretty fabulous being in such good company, and I love that the state of Massachusetts (specifically, the library system) does so much to promote books. I’ve added the other books to my own “Must-Read” list – hey, they’re librarian endorsed! No one’s on more intimate footing with books than a librarian.

A nice side benefit: I’ve now met Amy Dryansky, Mark Hart (also from Amherst!!) and Ben Berman. It was such a pleasure. I hope I’ll get to meet Stephen Burt and Myles Gordon, as well. 

Split This Rock Poetry Fest (the nonlinear post)

So, yes, the incredible Split This Rock Poetry Fest in Washington D.C. was at the end of March, before the PEN awards, but I was so busy getting ready for PEN (got my hair cut, took a shower, shined my boots, that sort of thing) that I didn’t have a chance to write this entry. 

I am so glad I went. Because of the semester teaching/grading crunch, I flew down Friday morning and stayed through Saturday night, but I missed some incredible readings and panels with such a short window. Next time – I am definitely going next time – I’m going for the whole of it.

If you’re not familiar with Split This Rock and their mission of “poems of provocation and witness,” check out their website here:

Split This Rock

…and, at the very least, sign up for their poetry emails. The poems of the week are ones that make me pause and listen and consider the space I inhabit: white, female, middle class, mother, in a heterosexual relationship, American, New Englander, educated. I listen and learn, carry these poems forward.

I went to some brilliant panels and was a small part of one of the readings, pictures below courtesy of the official Split This Rock photographer, Kristen Adair. I read first: 


Dan Vera introduced us with his great stage presence and warmth and obvious passion for poetry.



Then came Malachi Byrd, a member of the DC Youth Slam Team. Very inspiring, sweet guy, big heart. Keep at it, Malachi. 


The features followed: first, Maria Melendez Kelson. I have her gorgeous book Flexible Bones (now signed, yay!). What a performer – big gestures, big presence, moving poems. She owned the stage. She’s also adorable and a sweetheart. You know how it is when you meet someone and have the sense they will be part of your life, somehow, at some point? I had that sense with Maria. May I be so lucky.


Tim Seibles next – I love his book Fast Animal (now also signed – love the festival signature gathering!). Tim was the judge for this year’s Split This Rock poetry contest, so he’s the reason I went. He read one long, incredible poem: “One Turn Around the Sun.” Later, I heard someone say “Now there’s an argument in favor of the long poem.” I honestly sat on the edge of my seat through the whole thing, loving the way the narrative looped back on itself, the ants and the lover and so much sexy goodness returning and returning and me, the happy listener along for the ride.


Anne Waldman was the closer. Later, my friends asked me what I thought of Anne, and I understand why they asked. She’s not linear, not overtly narrative – she’s a poet of susurrus and sweat and song, of discord and concordance, of disturbance, of thunder. I honestly have never seen anyone quite like her, and rather than try to trap her words under some story line, I very happily let her verse wash over me, a great wave of sound and rumbling and melody. At times, I had no idea what was going on, and I frankly did not care. If she had not stopped on her own, I tell you I would still be sitting in that seat in D.C., ridiculously hungry but wildly happy, not caring that my plane home had passed me by. Look at this energy:


By the end, you had the feeling that she might jump off stage, gather the whole crowd on her shoulders, and take to the streets. Take over the streets. I think she eats sheet metal and bench presses pianos. 

That was ONE reading. Crazy, no? I also had the joy of hearing Eduardo Corral, Natalie Diaz, Claudia Rankine, Myra Sklarew, Gayle Danley, and more at panels and readings, so I’ll put a few of their photos below. Their words broke me in the way only poetry can. 

Who’s responsible for all this, you ask? Sarah Browning, below, at one of the Take Poetry to the Streets events. Small world: she’s the daughter of Preston Browning, activist and owner of Wellspring House, where I like to go for writing retreats. I’d met her only in passing a year before, so it was great chatting with her before the Kelson/Seibles/Waldman reading. 


I met so many fabulous folks! Special thanks to Karren Alenier, who found the text for Tim Seibles’s poem and made me feel welcome in a city not my own. 

Overheard at the conference: “This is what AWP used to feel like, before it got so big.” I never went to AWP when it was smaller (there were upwards of 15,000 attendees at this year’s AWP), but I can imagine it. All the big names at SLR were approachable, in attendance at the events, happy to talk. And yet – names didn’t seem to matter. No one’s giant ego knocked anyone down. There was space for being heard, for listening. 

The festival is every two years. 2016. Sign me up.

PEN New England & Hemingway awards ceremony

It will take me about a week to recover from this weekend – mostly because Karen Wulf did *not* present me with a seven-foot-tall trophy (kidding, KW). My head’s a swarm of bees. Nothing a little quiet time and some chocolate can’t cure.

I got to meet and chat with the other winners and finalists and they were, to a person, lovely. People with whom you are glad to be associated. I couldn’t detect any ego, any arrogance, just gratitude, joy, warmth. Jennifer Haigh (PEN NE fiction) and Doug Bauer (PEN NE nonfiction) were so kind and open. Mitchell Jackson, Anthony Wallace, and Kris Jansma (PEN Hemingway finalists & honorable mentions) were gems, humble, down to earth. NoViolet Bulawayo (PEN Hemingway winner) has an accent you want to listen to forever. 

And Richard Blanco was there! I can announce it now, since it was a public event – Richard Blanco, most widely known for being the inaugural poet at Obama’s second inauguration, was the judge for the PEN NE poetry award. I can hardly get over that he READ my book, much less LIKED it, much less CHOSE it for this award. And can I add – Blanco is the most genuine, funny, and smart person you could ever want to meet. My husband Dennis & I were smitten. 

I’m going to post what Blanco wrote about my book, then I’m going to post some thanks to friends who drove all the way to the awards ceremony, then I’m posting some amateur photos. 

What Blanco wrote:
“In her magnificent debut collection, Karen Skolfield made me fall in love with poetry all over again, reminding me of its divine power to find the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary. She understands that poetry does not exist independently; it is pulled out of all we see, without pretense or artifice, and not in the obvious and expected ways either. Her poems surprise with each turn of the line; they foray into the unexpected discoveries and dimensions. After reading her poems, I will never again look at a baby, a fossil, a painting, a key, a homunculus – or myself – as I had before. If poetry is meant to challenge and change our perceptions of the world and ourselves, then Karen is by all means an extraordinary poet.” 

Some thanks: to Nicole DiCello and Robyn Heisey, good friends and poetry goddesses, for coming to the ceremony; and to Ali and Jeannette Wicks-Lim for handling my two squirrelly children at the awards reception and putting up with Red Sox traffic BOTH ways (bummer). 

The PEN New England award ceremony speech (that never was)

First: I’m not giving a speech. When I got the news from Karen Wulf of PEN NE, though, it was on crummy cell phone reception and right before I went backpacking in New Mexico with my family. I had three days of hiking and getting snagged by various cholla cactuses to contemplate the award, and over that time I began to wonder if I would give a speech – if, in fact, Karen Wulf had told me I’d be giving an acceptance speech but the phone had cut out at just that moment.
I am not a giver of speeches. But I began to write one in my head, just in case, on our hikes, up and over these huge boulders cast down by the mountains around Dog Canyon. I won’t get to give this at the awards ceremony, but here it is.
“Three weeks ago, after getting the call from Karen Wulf, I turned to my husband: ‘Lucky you,’ I told him. ‘You get to be with the winner of the PEN New England Award in poetry.’ Later that day, when my children asked for dinner, they were told a PEN New England Award winner would not be handling their corporeal needs. Red lights and stop signs held no meaning for me. Dust and dog hair might build up in someone else’s house, but not in mine.
“So far, the PEN New England has made me an egotistical lover, a detached parent, a distracted driver, and a slovenly housekeeper.
“But I can tell that the less-savory effects of the award are fading. I’ve cooked a few times, pushed a vacuum around the house, apologized to my husband – you can guess how – and even re-acquainted myself with the brake pedal in my car.
“Those of you who know my writing know that I use humor as an interface for the more serious thoughts that follow, so I will say that what’s left after the vainglorious last few weeks is gratitude, a river of it, and with it, a new level of confidence that I did not even know I lacked. A desire to never again apologize for being a poet by calling myself by the generic ‘writer.’

“I’m still shocked that I, a PEN winner, must sometimes mop the floor. That the dogs need to be walked, the homework graded. I still get junk mail and sometimes, when the phone rings, it’s one of those annoying surveys. In these ways, PEN has not improved my life one bit. But my back is straighter. I can’t stop smiling. Turns out, it is my thank-yous that don’t see red lights or stop signs, but will continue on and on.”

2014 PEN New England Award in poetry

So – strange. I’ve put off writing this post for a few weeks, partly due to travel (vacation, yay) and partly because, as it turns out, winning a big award comes with certain obligations. The obligations are fun – an award ceremony this weekend (April 6), alerting all the publications who have ever been so kind as to publish something of mine or a review (I’m still not done yet), and in the future, some readings. All good.

Mostly, though, I’ve had to let this one sink in. My book, out of all the books of poetry published in New England in 2013 and submitted to PEN, was chosen. I don’t know if I can say who the final judge was, as PEN has not made this announcement, but my book had to rise in the usual path through all those books and somehow, somehow, get chosen. Over the past weeks, I’ve felt both ridiculously giddy and very humbled, mostly at the same time. I’m a little closer to tears than usual. My husband is so happy for me that I think even he is closer to tears than usual. I wish I could tell my mom. I wish, I wish. Why is it that an award leaves me wishing? 

When Karen Wulf of PEN New England called me, she told me my book just “levitated” to the top. Ms. Wulf, nothing before has made me believe in the supernatural, but my book levitating anywhere makes me believe. I’m going to keep an eye on my contributor copies at home, see if they occasionally hover. 

I know there’s some ground down there, and my feet will eventually encounter it, but for now, my book and I don’t feel gravity’s tug.

Here’s the link to the PEN announcement:
PEN New England Awards

2014 Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship

It’s funny getting the news via Facebook – Carol Berg from Groton sent me a message. Congratulations, she wrote, on the MCC grant! Uhm… grant? I turned and saw the light blinking on the answering machine, and sure enough, it’s the message from the Massachusetts Cultural Council telling me I’ve won a $10,000 grant for poetry.

Ten large, as my friend Daniel Hales called it.

Here are the sweet things that have happened to me since yesterday:
1) When I told my kids about the grant, they enthusiastically replied “Oh! What’s for snack?”
2) My husband said to tell my boss I’m taking leave next year.
3) Corwin Ericson hugged me so hard I thought my ribs would crack, kissed me on both cheeks, and called me “Karen Fucking Skolfield!” for the rest of the evening. Also, he brought champagne.
4) My writing group was kind and celebratory and truly glad for me, and they fed me homemade soup and bread and were quick to pour more of the champagne, mentioned above.
5) Tons of congratulations from friends by way of email and Facebook.
6) I couldn’t sleep.
7) Pretty good reason not to sleep.
8) Two hours of pond hockey with my kids, some of their friends, and some of my adult friends. I scored goals. Everyone scored goals. The kids won (they always win). 
9) Mat Jacobson asked to borrow money, but only $50. Isn’t that sweet?
10) I bought socks. Nice socks. 

Here’s the list for the MCC 2014 fellows. I’m the only poet representing the 413 area code. One artist fellow, plus two finalists in Traditional Arts from the 413. Judging is blind, and the categories of fellowships are offered every two years.

http://www.massculturalcouncil.org/programs/fellows_funding.asp

Thank you, Massachusetts. 

I’m going to go try that sleep thing again. 

2014 Split This Rock poetry contest

I just got word that I won the 2014 Split This Rock poetry contest, judged by Tim Seibles. Am I jumping up and down? Oh, yes. Here’s the link to the announcement and the poem:

“At the Mall, There’s a Machine That Tells You If You Are Racist”

While I’m at it, because I know I should, here’s a link to my book Frost in the Low Areas, which won the First Book Award for Poetry from Zone 3 Press and was published October 2013. Free shipping!

Frost in the Low Areas by Karen Skolfield

Enough about me, yeah? Instead, let’s celebrate a poem of Tim Seibles that’s sexy and body-powerful and positive and just all around fun. 

“Ode to My Hands” by Tim Seibles

My gratitude to Split This Rock – I have enjoyed the poetry they put forward for years, and I’m so happy to be invited to the Split This Rock festival in D.C. in March. Looking forward to it!

A review of my book, from Heavy Feather Review

Jordan Sanderson reviews Frost. Nice! 

Heavy Feather Review

It’s another one of those cases where someone sees more about my work than what I could see. Sanderson writes “In some of the poems, an abrupt sound transforms an entire scene.” And of course, Sanderson is correct: there’s an owl screaming, the sound of a glass dish shattering, the tapping out of S-O-S, but I’d never considered those sounds before and how they work in the manuscript. It’s one of the reasons writers need an audience.

Many thanks, HFR.